Years ago, in a management seminar at my former company, we discussed a story that was supposed to illustrate the perils of groupthink. The story -- actually more of a personal anecdote -- originated with a management expert named Jerry Harvey and has come to be known as "The Road to Abilene." Harvey described how he and his wife were sitting around with her parents on a porch in Coleman, Texas when his father-in-law suggested they all pile in the car and drive to Abilene, where they could grab dinner at a local cafeteria. They all agreed this was good idea, even though it was a ferociously hot day in an era before air conditioning, and Abilene was 53 miles away. They arrived back home four hours later, hot, tired and dusty. Gradually, it came out that no one had really wanted to go to Abilene in the first place; they only agreed to it because each thought the others wanted to. Even the father-in-law admitted that he had only suggested going there because he figured people might be bored sitting around on the porch.
The road to Abilene is paved with good intentions, which is why it is so well traveled, regardless of the actual destination. We are a restless breed, and simply putting ourselves in motion is often enough to persuade us that we are actually getting somewhere. This is no less true when we embark on religious pilgrimages in the hope of getting closer to God.
Many centuries before there was a tourist industry as such, pilgrims embarked on sacred journeys that were far longer and more arduous than Jerry Harvey's misspent afternoon in Abilene. Pilgrimages are a fixture of every major religious tradition. Jews were required to go to Jerusalem and make sacrifices at the Temple until its destruction in 70 A.D. Christians have been traveling to the Holy Land since at least the fourth century, when the Empress Helena, mother of Rome's first Christian emperor, first visited Jerusalem. There she excavated three wooden crosses that were supposedly used to crucify Jesus and the two thieves who died with him. Pilgrimages to the shrines of saints and martyrs were regarded as a sacred obligation during the Middle Ages and were often undertaken as penances for sin. In Islam, a pilgrimage to the holy shrine at Mecca is required at least once of all able-bodied Muslims who can afford to go. Not to be outdone, the former Soviet Union embalmed Lenin's body and put it on display inside the Kremlin Wall, where it still attracts reverent throngs.
As time went on, pilgrimages came to be regarded not simply as a sacred undertaking but also as a business opportunity. There was much trafficking in saintly relics and other religious artifacts, not the least fragments of the True Cross that St. Helena believed she had unearthed in Jerusalem. With so many churches across Europe claiming this artifact for themselves, the Protestant reformer John Calvin quipped there was enough wood in circulation to make up a large shipload. Religious figures who had once extolled the spiritual benefits of pilgrimages began complaining about their excesses. Chaucer made clear in Canterbury Tales that pilgrims were by no means as high-minded as their undertaking might suggest. The prospect of long periods away from home only whetted their earthly appetites. As the fifteenth-century English Dominican John Bromyard noted with disapproval, "There are some who keep their pilgrimages and festivals not for God but for the devil."
St. Gregory Nazianzen pointed out that pilgrimages had undeniable merits but were not an obligatory religious practice that Christ commanded. There are certainly examples in the Old Testament of shrines that were established to commemorate some sacred event. However, Jesus actively discouraged this practice when his disciples wanted to erect booths to mark the site of the Transfiguration. Sacred shrines and holy places may have intrinsic historical or cultural interest. But if it is true illumination we seek, we are bound to be disappointed. At best we will find in the objects of our veneration only reflected glory from the light we ourselves shine upon them.